Reenactment of Ancient Ritual Forges Connections

By Karen Rubin

As we watch the rowers coming in to the beach at Playa del Carmen, frantically paddling against the powerful waves and trying to keep their crude wooden canoes from spilling them into the rough sea, all of us, from the Shaman doing their priestly dances on the beach, to the villagers who anxiously wait with gourds of water and baskets of tamales for their loved ones to return, to the cheering people in brightly colored bathing suits and shorts, all of us are taken into the moment.

The Sacred Mayan Journey begins with a night of priestly rituals ((© 2009 Karen Rubin).

We are witnesses to a sacred journey – a chance to connect old with new, individuals on a personal quest renewing a community. The experience is as profound for us, each in our own way, as for the Maya who created a sophisticated civilization hundreds of years before the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors.

In ancient times, the Maya would pay homage to Ix-Chel, the goddess of fertility and one of the most important deities in the Mayan tradition, and take a perilous journey from Polé (today’s Xcaret) across some 15 miles of open sea to the oracle on Cuzamil (Cozumel) to ask for guidance. Traveling by a 26-foot long canoe hewn from a single tree, this was a dangerous and daunting undertaking, and one that involved personal sacrifice.

The return of the rowers to Mamitas Beach, in Playa del Carmen, where hundreds of us wait and watch the horizon, is the culmination of two days and nights of rituals, ceremonies and performances, in which we are thoroughly immersed.

This ritual of the Travesia Sagrada Maya – Sacred Mayan Journey – is recreated with astonishing realism.

Rowers make a daring sunrise effort against the wave to start their Sacred Mayan Journey from Xcaret, only to be pushed back ((© 2009 Karen Rubin).

And an amazing thing happens�. It ceases being a re-creation.

That is a testament to just how authentic the entire festival is. Meticulously re-created with the help of universities and Mayan scholars and hundreds of Maya villagers who still live in the Yucatan Peninsula, the Sacred Mayan Journey lets us re-connect not just with the heritage of this ancient people, but to understand it in a modern context.

In real time, in the present day, the experience affects change in you as a person, as a community, and a people, just as I would imagine, this same spiritual-physical ordeal did in ancient times.

That is to say, participating in the experience affected each and every one of us in our modern lives – from the rowers themselves, who had trained and practiced in teams for two and three hours a day for the past three months but still had to confront that sense of personal doubt and challenge as they began their 15-mile, six-hour ordeal.

And for us, who through the rituals and ceremonies were reacquainted or reminded of this intimate connection with the natural world and the forces beyond our control. It is good to be humbled. It is very New Age.

Rowers struggle against the pounding waves(© 2009 Karen Rubin).

It also forges a connection for all of us – those who rowed and those who performed the rituals and those of us who watched – with the Maya of so long ago.

Mystical Rituals

The Sacred Mayan Journey had begun two nights before, with a midnight pilgrimage to a temple mount on virtually the same site as in ancient times, with the wind and rain whipping up as the Shaman anointed the appointed one, a modern hero selected to make the quest, adding to the mystical atmosphere.

We have a role that is beyond being a mere spectator. Dressed in white, we become the congregation engaged in the rituals, ceremonies and supplications to Ix-Chel. We entreat the goddess to bestow fertility of the earth with abundant harvests and good fishing; good weather with favorable winds, enough rain, and temperature that will help the harvest; harmony of body, mind and spirit; and peace and harmony among species, according to the natural order of the planet.

We are witness to only the second annual Sacred Mayan Journey (it will be offered again, May 21-23, 2009); I am one of 68 journalists invited to attend, and there are about 2,000 people, many local, who participate (the events are actually free to attend). The most profoundly moving part of the experience is seeing firsthand its power to renew the cultural legacy of the Mayan heritage, at its zenith from the 11-16th centuries, and forge a new awakening, pride and sense of community in modern society.

Waves press them back towards the rocks; others had already been tossed into the sea ((© 2009 Karen Rubin).

Seeing what these contemporary rowers have undertaken, you cannot but marvel at the courage and daring of ancient navigators, whose trade networks were one of the crowning glories of Mayan culture in Yucat�n. You can better appreciate the fatalism that embued their spirituality – without the benefit of weather satellites or a naval vessel and rescue ship help them – and how this journey also prepared them for the more mundane challenges of maritime trade that made the Maya so successful as a civilization.

Sacred Journey Gets Underway

First, you have to appreciate just what an undertaking this was.

It took two years of research just to figure out how the ancients made these canoes. All 30 canoes, 26-feet long, were hand-hewn from a single tree; the paddles were also hand-carved. Because of this, the canoes and paddles were all very different; they balanced differently, took on water differently, and became one of the key challenges that each team of rowers faced.

The "hero" leaves the temple at Cozumel with the oracle ((© 2009 Karen Rubin).

Some 300 people signed on as rowers, training in teams of four, five or six per canoe for two or three hours a day for three months. Many of the rowers are descendents of the Mayan people – in fact, there are more than 350,000 Maya living in the Yucatan who speak Yukatek Maya and an estimated six million Maya live in Central America. But many more who have joined the quest reflect the diversity of modern-day Mexico, and for them, especially, the event engenders new understanding and respect for the Maya tradition.

“The event has filled us with pride in our heritage,” Edith Ramirez, who handles public relations for the Cozumel Promotion Board, tells us. “Even we hadn’t realized this before. It is building community.”

Three of her friends, all women, are among the rowers. In ancient times, the women would have come on the journey carrying the offerings to the goddess Ix-Chel, but in this modern revival, just about every canoe has at least one woman rower and her friends are in a team that is all women.

Mayan dancers evoke the spirit world((© 2009 Karen Rubin).

Teamwork is essential to keep the canoe balanced in the rocking sea, so they are not toppled out. They would have to paddle some four to six hours across 15 miles of open sea; water would flood the canoes, forcing at least one of the team to bail constantly, leaving only three or four to paddle against the powerful waves.

What made the experience more harrowing is that prior to the actual event, the rowers had only had one practice in the open water, paddling five miles, so for each of them, there was the gnawing feeling of not knowing whether they would have the stamina or skill to make it across.

The physical event is bookended with rituals, ceremonies and performances. These also are meticulously re-created, based on archeological evidence, mainly from ceramics that have survived, since some 5,000 codicils of the Mayan civilization were destroyed by their conquerors, who had a goal of supplanting the Mayan traditions with their own.

The hero with his entourage prepare for the return ((© 2009 Karen Rubin).

The impetus for the Sacred Mayan Journey emanated from Xcaret, this amazing eco-archeological park set on that same ancient site, Polé, from which the ancients would have started their journey. Xcaret almost defies description (see Riviera Maya story), and the idea was embraced by the State of Quintaro Roo’s tourism office.

“The Sacred Journey project was born with the idea, year by year, of recovering one of the most significant traditions of the ancient Mayan people of this region: the ritual crossing of the Channel to Cozumel to worship the goddess Ix-Chel,” Iliana Rodríguez Public Relations Manager for Xcaret tells us. From the first Sacred Mayan Journey in 2007, “this historical re-enactment seeks to revive interest in the Mayan civilization and strengthen the cultural ties of the area’s inhabitants.”

Xcaret, which daily brings the ancient Mayan culture and heritage to life and which produces a nightly “Mexico Spectacular” show that is truly spectacular, spent $1 million on the Sacred Mayan Journey festival. Their artisans spent six weeks building a village and temple in Xcaret on virtually the same site, the Port of Polé, from where ancient pilgrims would travel by canoe to Cozumel, where another village and temple were constructed at Chankanaab, a much smaller eco-archeological park.

The rowers paddle hard to make it to the beach, and the end of their Sacred Mayan Journey ((© 2009 Karen Rubin).

Xcaret has proved masterful at producing spectacular theatrical productions, produced two spectaculars involving hundreds of Mayan villagers – mostly volunteers and nonprofessionals. The productions that we watch during the course of the Sacred Mayan Journey are like a combination of Greek theater, Sound & Light, and the Oberammagau Passion Play, and as we watch, a story develops around our hero.

After we watch the ceremonies and rituals anointing and blessing the hero who would be sent to get the oracle, we write down our requests or offerings to Ix-Chel. Our slips of paper are gathered up by young people from four villages to be thrown to the wind or burnt on the sacred fire to send them to the goddess of the Moon.

It is about 2:30 a.m. when we walk over to the Village of Fishermen, where we witness a theatrical spectacle, all the more realistic because the hundreds of villagers in the production are local people.

Villagers watch anxiously for loved ones to return((© 2009 Karen Rubin).

As I watch, I realize that these “performers” are not really performing at all. They are wearing traditional clothes, but they are pregnant women (who figure importantly in this ritual for the goddess of fertility), mothers with their infants and children, their husbands and fathers. As the night heads toward dawn, it is very moving to see the mothers hold their children tenderly.

There are dances in tribute to Ix-Chel by the communities from Zona Maya: Tzotziles, Chontales and Tihozuco. We are asked to open our eyes, our mind and our hearts and listen to the old pahuaho’ob and learn about Kan Ix, the representative of the rowers.

The dances depict the spirit world – Ix-Chel stands over the hero’s pregnant wife, who has collapsed. Our hero is forced to make the pilgrimage to try to save her.

In one amazing sequence, men costumed like animals, take on animal characteristics in their dance – monkeys, jaguar, alligator, frog, tiger. The dancers come from Chiapas – a Mayan community.

They sing in a mixture of Yukatek Maya and Spanish. Through the dance, we come to realize that Ix-Chel is not always benevolent – the goddess of fertility, carnal love, who knits together lives and gives life, also can take life away by causing hurricane or some natural disaster.

We get to see that for ourselves, as a tropical storm kicks up the wind and spray, adding to the real drama of the journey.

At about 5:30 a.m., we head over to the beach where rowers make a solemn procession and go over to their canoes. Each canoe is blessed, and the Shaman conducts a purification ceremony.

Priests keep away bad spirits ((© 2009 Karen Rubin).

But at this point, instead of a rising sun and a calm sea, the wind and rain whip up fiercely. Some 30 canoes came out in a line from a small cove and head out in a brave and bold challenge against the waves that force them back into the cove. Within the first few minutes, a canoe capsizes, then another, and it is clear how dangerous a crossing this would be, even if the rowers could summon the strength to make it over the breaking waves.

As it turns out, there is a tropical storm at sea, and the waves are really quite violent.

Much to the disappointment of the rowers, the decision is made that they are not to cross over to Cozumel this day.

But that does not end the Journey for them, or for us.

After breakfast, our group is taken to where a small pontoon ferry will take us across to Cozumel Island. The original plan is to get ahead of the rowers and meet them when they arrive, some six hours later. Even though the rowers will not be coming, we are going to Cozumel to see the second half of the ritual – when the hero receives the oracle at the temple and the sunrise departure of the second group of 150 rowers who will take up the second part of the journey, and paddle the canoes back to Playa del Carmen.

But here is where we have our own close encounter with Ix-Chel’s power. The sea is really fierce. Just getting onto the ferry is an ordeal – it rises and falls by six feet. As we head past the breaker, waves pour over the bow, drenching us. In my mind, I am seeing that scene in “Perfect Storm”. After more than an hour (the whole trip shouldn’t have taken more than a few hours), we are still within sight of the dock, and have the bulk of the trip to go. We finally convince the captain to bring us back.

Priest evokes the ancient traditions ((© 2009 Karen Rubin).

That didn’t end it, though. We are on a quest of our own, after all. We go instead to the big, fast ferry (it feels like the Queen Mary compared to the pontoon we had been on) that regularly goes between Playa del Carmen and Cozumel (the new ferry makes the trip in about 45 minutes, compared to 2 hours before), and finally arrive at Cozumel Island.

We have a chance to refresh and recover, with lunch at a delightful restaurant on Cozumel, Jimmy Buffet’s Margaritaville, before heading over to our hotel, the Coral Princess, to rest before the Sacred Mayan Journey event continues that evening.

The weather has cleared in time for the rituals and ceremonies and performance to continue that night at Chankanaab, the eco-archeological park on Cozumel, where another village and temple has been re-created. Now we see our chosen one, the hero, coming with great fanfare to the temple, to receive the oracle to bring back to his village.

It is another stunning and inspiring production involving hundreds of villagers that seems to erase the centuries of time. It is designed to promote the interaction of the community of Cozumel with the Mayan villagers and after the performance, we actually get to go on the stage to meet many of the performers, who are grinning in well-deserved satisfaction.

I realize that this is as thrilling for local people who possibly never had a chance before to see such a grand reenactment of their ancient heritage, as it is for us.

We return to our hotel, the Coral Princess, a charming boutique hotel on the water (at sunset, you can see the pyramid at Xcaret silhouetted on the horizon, and a cruise ship making its way out to sea; the hotel is also a timeshare, with exchanges through RCI,

The Journey Resumes

Contrast of ancient and modern somehow blend together on the beach at Playa del Carmen ((© 2009 Karen Rubin).

We are up again at about 5 a.m., and return to Chankanaab, for the second part of the Journey.

At the first ray of sunlight, the village that has been created on the beach becomes inhabited with women and children, their faces painted. They prepare cooking fires.

With great ceremony, 150 rowers – the men wearing white loincloths and headscarves, the women in white dresses trimmed in red – get into the 25 canoes and are blessed by the Chilam of Cuzamil as they embark on their sacred journey back across the sea. It will take them between four and six hours to make the crossing back.

This time, the weather and a favorable wind helps them, and it is amazing how soon they become tiny dots on a horizon, the size of a mosquito compared to the Mexican naval ship that is there to escort them, along with another motor boat.

Even with these modern precautions, the journey is risky. On one of the boats, a rower’s paddle snaps, making it impossible for the team to continue – they are replaced with another team from the motor boat.

“The paddle is life,” a rower says.

We get back on the fast ferry from Cozumel to Playa del Carmen, and take our place on Mamitas beach to watch and wait for the rowers’ return.

There are hundreds of Mayan people here, all in traditional dress, making you feel as if you have slipped into some time warp, but the moment is now. They are anxiously waiting for their loved ones to return with the same ardor their ancestors would have.

They are the people of Xaman-Ha, joined by Batab and the entourage, waiting for the rowers to return bearing answers from the goddess Ix-Chel. Shaman dance on the beach and I am thrilled to think this is exactly what it would have been like if I could have been a National Geographic photographer capturing the scene on the shore hundreds of years ago.

Fellow rowers wait to help a team fighting the surf to make it to the beach ((© 2009 Karen Rubin)

The scene is perfect, until a windsurfer almost collides with the first canoe arriving.

There is genuine celebration as the canoe comes into the beach; villagers rush into the waves to help pull it in. The rowers embrace their loved ones as they come to shore, are given a gourd of water to drink and food, and excitedly tell of their adventures making the crossing, and then sit on the beach, waiting for the next canoe to arrive. One by one this goes on until there are hundreds of people on the beach.

The challenge of paddling across open seas, from the sacred temple at Cozumel to the Playa del Carmen shore, put the rowers in the same hands of fates and gods that their ancestors would have experienced. The physical demands – physically, mentally and spiritually – as well as the risk were very real, and seemed to forge a bond across the ages.

We are there to greet Betty Sandoval, a 47-year old woman who runs a swimming school. She tells us she was inspired to sign on as a rower because at the age of 14, she swam from Acuma to Cozumel, a distance of 46 miles, in 16 hours, 50 minutes, and wanted at this time in her life, to have such a challenge.

The leader of her all-female team, she says, “You have fear, especially with the weather – it was so wavy. But we have been training �We want to finish in a good way. I was leader. I said, ‘We need to do this.’

“The canoers had to be a team, to have the same way of thinking. That’s the great thing about the crossing. Doing our work, we were thinking how brave and powerful these people were. We do it once in a lifetime – they did it once or twice a year. Naturally, physically they were very strong people.

“Living on an island, you didn’t understand the meaning, but when you do this, you have to bring your effort, your mind. It touches you. You have respect for the way they lived. It was a spiritual journey for us, also. They would have been thinking about weather, waves – they didn’t know what would expect.

“In those days – they would feel they would survive if the gods willed it; today, we believe in strength inside. We never felt tired – it was about head more than arms.”

Sacred Mayan Journey afforded opportunity to meet modern day Mayan people up close ((© 2009 Karen Rubin).

She says she would exhort them to keep going, “We were cheering, chanting, singing, ‘We are powerful ladies. Ix-Chel is helping us.'” Then, reminding how Ix-Chel is the goddess of fertility, she says to her sister (and teammate) who is hoping for a child, “You have to bring the canoe to Ix-Chel to finish.”

Just how perilous an ordeal this is became apparent when we meet up with Max Schiaffino, a TV journalist from Mexico City. The waves were so strong, that after being thrown out of the canoe, the rescue boat couldn’t come close enough and he had to hold on for dear life for 30 minutes, before he could be rescued. He thought he would drown. “This whole experience has changed my life,” he says.

Many of the rowers who were disappointed the previous morning when they weren’t able to make the crossing from Xcaret to Cozumel, instead paddled up from Xcaret to the beach at Playa del Carmen, tackling the worst of the waves.

Finally, the chosen one returns with the oracle from the goddess Ix-Chel, and the message is brought to the priests.

Over time, the goal is to expand the Journey to make it more of an international event, with competitors from different countries, much as Hawaii’s Ironman has become.

The Sacred Mayan Journey will take place again, May 21-23, 2009. The format will be slightly changed from what we have experienced – instead of staying up all night, from midnight until the rowers set out at sunrise, there will be a purification and preparation ceremony at sundown on May 21 and the rowers will depart at sunrise the next day. The events on Cozumel will be similar to what we experienced, with a nighttime ceremony, and the rowers will set off at sunrise, as well. All the events are free of charge. (For more information, visit ).

The Sacred Mayan Journey showcases the prevailing theme that makes the Riviera Maya such a marvelous destination – yes, it is one of the best places to come for a sun and sand vacation, but the cultural, archeological and ecotourism themes that preserve its distinct character are dominant, adding to the richness of the travel experience.

“We want to diversify tourism that comes in from the sun and the beach and add more cultural and archeological tourism,” says Carlos Joaquin Gonzalez, the tourism secretary for the state of Quintana Roo.


A new generation (© 2009 Karen Rubin).

The Sacred Mayan Journey is one of the most ambitious festivals in the calendar, but there are others during the year that give special impetus to visiting the Riviera Maya:

One of the more intriguing also takes place at Xcaret: The Xcaret Life and Death Traditions Festival, which takes place from October 30 -November 2, celebrates and preserves “Day of the Dead” and “All Saint’s Day” traditions from across Mexico including traditional music, food, rituals, and folkloric and classical dance with various shows and exhibits. During this festival, many indigenous villages set up altars. The central place for the event is a re-created cemetery (

The Riviera Maya Underground Film Festival, held during October, is a competition and a show of edgy and compelling independent short films and documentaries from filmmakers around the world. This is a non-profit event, and all activities are free. The goal of the festival is to bring together the filmmakers, experts and the public, and to promote the beauty of the destination, the Riviera Maya (

There are also major contemporary cultural events, as well. The Riviera Maya Jazz Festival, which will be in its seventh year, is emerging as one of the premiere jazz music events in the Americas. Participation is free! You sit on the sand at Mamitas Beach and listen to the music. The event takes place in November (


Pregnant women play an integral part in the rituals to the goddess Ix-Chel (© 2009 Karen Rubin).

The absolutely best way to enjoy the Sacred Mayan Journey is to stay at the Occidental Grand Xcaret Resort, just next door to Xcaret, this fantastic eco-anthropological park. This massive resort complex gives you the feeling of staying in a village of haciendas in the jungle, amidst monkeys, flamingos, deer, red macaws, who share the property. There are fabulous pools, restaurants, a beach lagoon, sports activities, a children’s activity program, nightly entertainment. The all-inclusive is truly all-inclusive: with all meals, unlimited drinks, and even a ticket for free admission to Xcaret (a $185 value for a family of four). You can stroll into Xcaret, along a small river, or take a small boat ride from the lobby. At night, don’t be surprised when a group of Maya, in full regalia, canoe into the hotel lobby. The accommodations, service, food and facilities are all topnotch ( or call 800-858-2258).

Easily accessible from many cities throughout the U.S., the 81-mile stretch known as the Riviera Maya is situated in the state of Quintana Roo, Mexico. Beginning 11 miles south of Cancun International Airport in Puerto Morelos, the Riviera Maya extends to Tulum, one of the most important archeological sites in the Mayan World (an international airport is opening in Tulum in 2010).

The region features the tranquility of uncrowded beaches, a vast network of underground rivers, over 100 cenotes, the action of eco-adventure sports including kayaking, mountain biking, scuba diving, snorkeling, trekking, bird watching and deep sea fishing, proximity to many of Mexico’s most significant Mayan archeological sites, the varied activities of the eco-archeological parks, plus golf courses, spas, shopping, gourmet dining and a range of accommodations to suit every lifestyle and budget.

For more information on the Riviera Maya, e-mail or visit

As we come to realize, the Mayan people and culture are very much alive in the Riviera Maya and during the course of just a few days, we have the chance to discover it.

See also:

Saturday, 31 January, 2009

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About Travel Features Syndicate

Karen Rubin is an eclectic travel writer who has been spanning the globe for more than 30 years reporting on interesting, intriguing people and places to explore for magazines, newspapers and online. She publishes Travel Features Syndicate in newspapers and online including, Huffington Post and and blogs at "Travel is a life-changing and an interactive experience that mutually benefits travelers and community." Contact Karen at 'Like' us at

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